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Hitting city hills on Yamaha's new Zuma 50F scooter

To tout the capabilities of its 2012 Yamaha Zuma 50F scooter, Yamaha picked the busy streets and steep hills of San Francisco and let members of the media take the little two-wheelers for a spin.

The 2012 Yamaha Zuma 50F. Yamaha

SAN FRANCISCO--When Yamaha gathered members of the media this week to road-test its 2012 Yamaha Zuma 50F, the motorcycle maker's reps unveiled PowerPoint presentations and let reporters tool around city landmarks to get a feel for the vehicle.

But, in this day of $4-per-gallon gas, all Yamaha might have to display to get buyers' attention is the vehicle's listed mileage: 132 mpg. With its 1.5-gallon tank tucked away beneath the rider's feet, that's 200-plus miles between $7 fill-ups in an age when filling a larger vehicle can cost north of $75. With numbers like that zipping about, more people might consider buying and riding scooters--especially if they're "green minded" and want to lay off the fossil fuels.

Yamaha chose San Francisco for the Zuma 50F demos because it's tailor-made for that environment. Small, fuel efficient, easy to park, and fast enough to keep up with clogged urban traffic, the 50cc engine was powerful enough to get even me--a certified lummox--up all but one of the city's Steve McQueen-christened hills. While the Zuma 50F got me down the brick-lined twists of crooked Lombard Street, it couldn't quite get me back up Telegraph Hill a short toss from Coit Tower. Me and my oafish frame had to hop off and jog it a few feet to the crest before hopping back on again. That was the only strike against the scooter's power, and it's not as if a majority of its buyers will be my size.

Some potential riders will be concerned about the safety of riding something so much smaller than a car, truck, or even a street cruiser motorcycle. But if driven in the environment it's intended for, the Zuma 50F requires no more skill or nerve than said motorcycle. Urban traffic rarely moves faster than 30 mph, and even more slowly during rush hour. Not only will the scooter keep up with that flow, it'll zip in and out of it at stop lights without (hopefully) endangering the rider.

At $2,490, the Zuma 50F would seem a perfect urban transport option for any situation, but its effectiveness is based more on where it's driven than who drives it. The Zuma would flourish in a compact urban environment like San Francisco, a college campus, the suburbs, a farm, or a rural getaway. It requires either packed traffic of modest speed or very little traffic on open, safe roads. It would be useless and unwise in Los Angeles or Chicago, and it would take too long to make cross-country trips.

The 2012 Yamaha Zuma 50F, therefore, seems ideal for budget-conscious dwellers of some cities. It might even work for me on Telegraph Hill, if only I lay off the tri-tip the night before.